January 21, 2011

BOOKS: Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop, Otto Penzler, ed. (2010)

In addition to being one of the busiest (and best) editors and anthologists in the mystery arena, Otto Penzler also runs The Mysterious Bookshop in New York. For many years now, it has been his tradition to commission an original short story from a prominent mystery writer, which is bound into a small booklet and given as a Christmas gift to his customers and associates. Penzler asks that the story be a mystery set during the Christmas season, and that it take place (at least in part) at The Mysterious Bookshop. The booklets have become coveted prizes among mystery fans, and in this book, Penzler collects the stories from the 1993 through 2009 holidays.

It's an impressive lineup of authors -- Lawrence Block, Mary Higgins Clark, Donald E. Westlake, Anne Perry, Edward D. Hoch, etc. -- and many of them contribute stories featuring popular series characters such as Westlake's Dortmunder or Hoch's Nick Velvet. Penzler, or at least, a character bearing his name, appears in many of the stories, and given the setting, you're not surprised to find a lot of stories about stolen manuscripts.

None of the authors are doing their very best work here, but the stories add up to a delightful collection of bonbons. Highlights include Andrew Klavan's "The Killer Christian," which features a classic scene in which a hit man bursts in on an off-off-off Broadway technical rehearsal; Ron Goulart's "Murder for Dummies," in which a struggling author finally finds the key to success; and Jeremiah Healy's "The Holiday Fairy," in which John Cuddy visits from Boston to help Penzler solve a mystery. The ratio of hits to misses is quite high, though there are a couple of clunkers. Anne Perry's "My Object All Sublime" sets up an intriguing premise, but wimps out on the ending; Jonathan Santlofer's "The 74th Tale" is an attempted homage to Edgar Allan Poe that doesn't work at all.

On the whole, though, it's a charming collection of miniatures, almost enough to make me go hunting for the website of The Mysterious Bookshop come November to do some shopping and get myself a copy of next year's story.

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